In Bolinas, helping hands meet in a kitchen

David Briggs
Serita Basilio-Lewis throws brocolli onto a stove at the Coast Café, where she and several volunteers prepared Thanksgiving meals on Monday for delivery to a host of Bolinas families in need—whether because of ill health, struggling finances or the arrival of a newborn—as part of Food for Families.

It wasn’t long after her mother fell ill that Serita Basilio-Lewis began to rely on support from family friends in her hometown of Bolinas. Weighed down by grief, at times she found consolation in a “crew of angels” that took turns caring for her mother at her home while she worked to make ends meet as a dispatcher for Fairfax police. 

“Life is difficult enough without supporting each other,” said Ms. Basilio-Lewis, whose mother, Nola Lewis, died of breast cancer in 2002. “I know how much [my mother] meant to people in the community.”

That sense of compassion is what Ms. Basilio-Lewis now is trying to spread. In the past year and half, she has made it her job to visit residents struggling with limited finances or poor health—or with the responsibility of caring for a newborn—bearing grocery bags full of food as part of an effort to spread care to “people that maybe don’t get the assistance they need.”

She has consulted with friends and local agencies like West Marin Senior Services to find clients in and around Bolinas, where once a week she heads a cooking operation that produces a week’s worth food as part of a project she calls Food for Families.

That is how she found Sheila O’Donnell, who was confined to her Bolinas home much of last year while recovering from a broken arm.

It was a challenging time for Ms. O’Donnell, a self-described socialite who could not afford to hire a personal cook.

“I can’t tell you how important it was,” Ms. O’Donnell, who works as a private investigator, said. “I didn’t have people saying, ‘Let me cook for you.’ She made it her business to come in and say, ‘Hey, how are you?’”

The effort typically draws about a dozen volunteers—some of whom are local chefs—to the Coast Café every Monday, when Ms. Basilio-Lewis and others spend the late morning and much of the afternoon preparing organic dishes like mushroom bread pudding and avocado salads for deliveries later that day. This week, they are preparing traditional Thanksgiving dishes, including mashed potatoes and roasted chicken.

“It seems like magic,” said Pat Dickens of Stinson Beach, a volunteer who learned

about the program a month ago from fellow members of the Threshold Choir, which sings to the terminally ill. “We start in the morning, cutting and cutting and cutting, and by the afternoon we have bags full of food.”

The charity has drawn admiration from Ms. Dickens, who was seeking volunteer work after recently returning from a two-year trip to Thailand, where she taught elementary students as a member of the Peace Corps.  

“I’ve worked with nonprofits for a long time, but I’ve never seen such an incredible enterprise,” she said. “It’s just good people doing good things.”

The effort emerged shortly after Ms. Basilio-Lewis returned a couple of years ago from Brooklyn, where she ran a soup kitchen for the homeless while working with a media company.

Reuniting with a handful of friends who were pregnant, she assumed the duty of roving chef, using friends’ kitchens to cook health-conscious foods tailored for their diets.  

Within two months she was bringing food to the homes of 10 families that she learned were facing similar struggles. Seeking a larger space, Ms. Basilio-Lewis was offered a deal by the owner of the Coast Café, where she now works some days as a chef. After learning about the food program, the owner agreed to lend the kitchen, which has three ovens, a large stove and cooler space, one day a week.

Now, more than 25 homeowners are receiving weekly deliveries of organic dishes based on their nutritional needs. Recipients are admitted on a discretionary basis. They remain a part of the program for varying lengths of time, depending on their health or financial footing.

Occasional donations from volunteers and other locals help cover the $150 to $200 weekly operating costs. Ms. Basilio-Lewis sometimes reaches into her own pockets, too.

“If it comes, it comes,” said Ms. Basilio-Lewis, whose effort also draws grants of $1,500 to $3,000 twice a year from the Stinson-Bolinas Community Fund. “I’m not going to push on people.”

But, she assured, “we can’t not do it for a week, just because we’re tight on money.”

The effort is carried by the goodwill of locals, too, including gardeners who provide vegetables and salad greens, foragers who bring wild mushrooms and fishermen who regularly drop off several pounds of crab and salmon.

The way the meals come together every week—with cooks and volunteers often preparing dishes with ingredients brought to the kitchen that day—is “so different from the way the world works,” said Sandra Estevef, who became involved after moving to Bolinas recently.  

“The fact that you have this commercial kitchen that they donate [once a week]—that’s crazy,” she said. Ms. Estevef spends some weeks in the kitchen chopping as much as “20 pounds of onions” between preparing other dishes like gnocchi, a potato pasta. “I’m in awe of a community like that.”

It is that sense of benevolence that helps shape the strong social fabric of Bolinas, where potluck dinners and other social gatherings are a common occurrence.

Ms. Basilio-Lewis said she is considering ways to partner with other support agencies to offer the service in other towns and cities. “As long as the spirit moves me, as long as there’s an avenue,” she said, “we’re going to see how long we can do it.”